Improving sustainability and efficiency with precision agriculture

Photo: WUR/Open Teelten


Precision agriculture is efficient and sustainable because it lets farmers save a lot on fertilizer, pesticides and fuel. That in turn reduces emissions of greenhouse gases and nitrogen compounds. But it does require farmers to invest in new technology. In the National Precision Agriculture Living Lab, Wageningen researchers advise farmers who are experimenting with this.

Just to be clear, the ‘lab’ is not a physical location. It is made up of 26 agricultural and horticultural businesses from Groningen to Zeeland and Limburg. The majority are arable farmers but there are also dairy farmers, fruit growers and flower bulb growers. Each farmer is mentored by an expert from Wageningen University & Research. “These farmers want to invest in precision agriculture and they are pleased to be able to draw on our knowledge,” says Corné Kempenaar, the project manager for the National Precision Agriculture Living Lab.

Precision agriculture lets farmers determine very precisely how much water, fertilizer or pesticide is needed per square metre or even per plant. That is possible thanks to technology such as GPS, sensors, drones, satellite images, ICT and robots. There is growing interest in precision agriculture as it allows farmers to work better and more efficiently. “That is why it is an important factor in the effort to introduce circular agriculture,” says Kempenaar. The applications range from irrigation, sowing, pest control and fertilization tailored to requirements to tractor path plans, strip cultivation and automated plant growth monitoring.

Autonomous robot

Methods for tackling weeds are attracting most interest, according to Kempenaar. Farmers can use sensors to create a map showing the variation in soil quality. “If the soil contains more organic matter, there will be more weeds and so more weedkiller will be needed,” explains Kempenaar. But herbicides also slow down crop growth. The soil map shows the places with less organic matter in the soil. “If farmer can manage to use less herbicide in the field, they not only save on herbicide but also increase the crop yield.”

The CropTraits – FieldExplorer with DJI M210 drone, both purchased by WUR from the Netherlands Plant Eco-phenotyping Centre (NPEC) NWO project. The aim of this project is to make high-tech measuring equipment available for research, for instance in the area of precision agriculture. Photo: Rick van de Zedde

One farmer is trying out a small robot that pulls up weeds as an alternative to chemical weed killers. This use of robot technology is still in the development stage. “The crop is iceberg lettuce. This crop is very well suited for this trial as you have large heads of lettuce growing at regular intervals. The challenge is whether the cameras on the robot can accurately identify the weeds.”

Attractive investment

The new techniques are an attractive investment for many farmers and market gardeners, explains Kempenaar. The costs can be substantial but precision agriculture also increases your revenue. “And broadly speaking, it produces savings of 20 to 25 per cent in water, fertilizer and pesticides on top of that. The cumulative savings over time are eventually as much as the initial investment. For some applications, the increase in revenue alone is enough to offset the costs.”

At the same time, the increasing range of technical options has led to a vast number of technical applications swamping the market, some of which are barely ready for commercial use. Various parties offer satellite images of varying quality, for instance. There are also dozens of different sensors on the market, offered for example by firms that also sell fertilizer and crop protection products. But it is not always clear which type of sensor is most appropriate.

Farmers can determine what is needed very precisely using drones. Photo: Shutterstock

“Farmers don’t have the time to investigate all the options,” says the project manager. That is why the participating farmers are so pleased with the independent advice, according to Kempenaar. “We explain to them what options are available. The farmers like knowing what works and which techniques still have issues. At the moment manufacturers can go from product development to the market launch in no time, with the inevitable consequences. Some technical solutions do what they promise, but not all by a long way.”

Potatoes planted

The researchers also help the farmers resolve any problems. Things can go wrong when sending data or instructions from the farm management system to the tractor or vice versa. “There may be a server update or sometimes there will be an error in a file. But the farmer still needs to get the potatoes planted that day,” says Kempenaar. Sometimes the Wageningen consultant can solve the problem; if not, they phone the supplier’s helpdesk. “Some companies are very committed and help you right away.”

Using precision agriculture, a farmer is aware of exactly which crops have too much or too little of something. WUR researcher Corné Kempenaar shows how the FieldExplorer, funded by the NPEC project, can be used to develop precision agriculture further so we can make agriculture more sustainable.

The publicity that the project has received has helped in that regard. Journalists have visited the farms and articles have regularly appeared in agricultural trade journals. The farmers have also shared their experiences with others via the National Precision Agriculture Living Lab’s Facebook group and the website. Kempenaar: “There are now about 2000 people following the Facebook posts. They also ask questions or raise problems from time to time.”

Online meet-ups

The project also organizes demonstrations and meet-ups at the farms, which often attract up to 100 visitors. “Three farmers were due to organize open days this year, but these did not go ahead because of the coronavirus crisis. Now we want to organize online meet-ups.” Kempenaar has noticed anyway that the farmers’ priorities have changed since the coronavirus outbreak. “There is only so much you can do when you are running a farm on your own, and the focus at the moment is not on being as precise as possible. These are uncertain times and businesspeople have become more cautious.”

In 2021 the researchers will evaluate what has been learnt in the project and examine how they can continue with it. “At present it is very difficult for a farmer to see all the data generated on his farm on a single platform, let alone use it to improve how the farm is run. We would like to improve the farmer’s data position.” Kempenaar and his colleagues are also involved in developing a system and a training programme for independent consultants who can then help farmers who want to implement precision agriculture.

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